Adding Innovation to Grand Theatrical Tradition

In March 2020 when Seattle went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, my 4-year-old daughter and I were scheduled to go to a show at the puppet theater. The theater company founder and director was a Seattle fixture who had been delighting families with shows for over 30 years with her troupe of puppeteers. That show was canceled as was the next and the next and the next. In the months after lockdown she sent out updates to us season ticket holders trying to plan and make good with the final shows of the season all the while balancing her expenses of rent and payroll.

And then several months later the next notice I received was an invite to a Zoom memorial service to celebrate the life of that puppet theater founder after she unexpectedly passed due to heart failure.

For me, this small example epitomizes so much of the experience of the pandemic – hard times and disappointment mixed with incredible innovation and flexibility in order to celebrate life. There are so many stories of how we’ve established a new normal and created new ways to create community and find meaning, many of those through art. As Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

So when I had the opportunity to talk with the brilliant and witty playwright, Jack Canfora, about his upcoming release of Step 9, one of his plays via podcast, I thought I’d share our conversation about the innovative way this brings theater to all of us and how we all can become patrons of the arts. [Spoiler alert: it’s by checking out Step 9 and donating!]

What made you think of delivering a play by podcast?

The company I’m a part of, New Normal Rep, grew out of the pandemic. It started by me reaching out to actors I knew and we’d read a play via Zoom every week. My main motivation was just to see my friends. But then it occurred to me it was a terrific group of actors and that, while plays over Zoom range from the painfully embarrassing to painfully boring, I and my friends thought we could find a way to make it interesting. It’s a new medium, and you have to adapt to that. Which was thrilling and sort of terrifying. Two of our plays from our first season are on our YouTube page at the moment, and we worked to establish some sense of physical continuity, and we (and by we, I mean myself, the actors, and the director of our first play, the famously brilliant and brilliantly famous Marsha Mason) settled on the actors looking directly at the screen. It’s not TV or the movies, it’s not even exactly theater, but it’s highly theatrical. It also privileges the language more than other mediums, so selfishly, that’s enjoyable. People described it as more intimate, and several felt as if they were in the scenes. So we were happy with that; we are proud of that.

But to finally answer your question, part of what we like about New Normal Rep – the cool kids just call it NNR – is that makes the experience vastly more democratic. You don’t have to live in New York or Chicago or London, and you don’t have to take out a mortgage to buy a ticket. We’re big believers in spreading the theatrical experience. And so it follows that podcasts, which are ubiquitous – two million of them, in fact – is a natural extension of that aim. They’re even more accessible. And there is great tradition of radio drama. In the UK, at least, it’s still very much alive. Pragmatically, we felt we could reach far more people, and our hope with this play is to establish some sort of footprint. Which is also why this play will be available for free. Moreover, because of various union rules, we can’t keep our productions online indefinitely, but with podcasts, there’s really no time limit.

How do you think this changes the world of theater for playwrights, actors and young people just starting in the business?

Great question. It’s always a 90 degree uphill swim, but what also happened during the pandemic, perhaps because of the pause, was that artists of color really organized and spoke up about the fact that they are generally really underrepresented. So it’s an exciting time in that sense, and NNR is excited to be a part of that, said the middle-aged white guy. Two of our first four plays were written by people of color, and two were by women, and the casts reflected real diversity. So that’s something else important to us. Literally anyone can hear our podcast and hopefully it will help inspire people who had traditionally viewed the doors as shut, or at least hard to talk your way inside past the bouncer, are now more accessible.

What does it take to produce a play as a podcast?

Well, some money, which, in the grand theatrical tradition, we are perilously short of at the moment, but, in an equally great theatrical tradition, we will find a way to get it done. We are very lucky in that  a lot of people are contributing, and even the small donations add up. It also takes a quality recording studio and a sound engineer who knows what they’re doing. It’s also our first one, so I’ll be able to better answer the question in a few weeks!

How do you think this changes the role of patrons of the arts? Is there still a need for that or does this become something sponsored by advertising and corporations?

Well, the short answer is artists are always going to need patrons. This medium makes it more democratic, as you can do it for under 20 grand. An independent film needs at least a couple of million quite often. So in America especially, although it’s become ubiquitous – that’s the second time I’ve used that word, which I was privately betting that I could do – yes, ads and companies will be vital.

How does an audience best applaud and get involved in this new model?

I’ll take any applause, regardless of quality or sincerity. Even that slow sarcastic clap will do in a pinch. I think audiences need to be made aware that these new forms of media are popping up and need to do just a little digging to find it. The good news/bad news for us and the listeners is that, yes, it is a niche, but the listener can have more of a say in what they want and companies like ours have a chance to get some notice. Because, as theater people, we need to be noticed at a level that is basically pathological.

But fortunately for us, we’re easy to find! You can go to our website to find out more about the play at www.newnormalrep.org as well as check out some of the plays and shorter pieces we’ve done on our YouTube channel (New Normal Rep)

What’s Step 9 about?

It’s about a woman debating whether she should prosecute her rapist after he writes to her and apologizes 30 years later. Is she willing to dredge up all of that trauma and in a sense relive it to get justice? Especially given how hard rape trials are to convict in the US. Her mother and daughter also have strong views on it, and all are smart feminists, but from different generations and therefore different philosophies. It’s also got jokes

__________

Talking with Jack made me think of the ways we can all be patron of the arts. For companies like New Normal Rep who are democratizing how theater is brought to all of us, we can give our time and attention as well as donations (DONATE | New Normal Rep) to make sure that what evolved from pandemic hardship and disappointment carries on in hope and community.

Because even my 4-year-old daughter knew, there is so much goodness in being with others to enjoy theater, laugh and think a little bit.

Here are links for Jack:

Jack is not only a playwright, artistic director and writer for this blog, he’s also a writing coach: Website: HOME | Jack Canfora (jackcanforawriter.com) Twitter and Instagram @jackcanfora

New Normal Rep @normalrep on Twitter and @newnormalrep on Instagram. Website with links to clips of their work and to donate at New Normal Rep

And my links: My personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or Instagram @wynneleon


17 thoughts on “Adding Innovation to Grand Theatrical Tradition

  1. This is very exciting, Wynne! Love the interview with Jack…as you said incredible innovation. And…a potent reminder of how fragile life is (your sharing about the sudden notice of the puppet theatre founder’s passing).
    Jack is a joy — and just because, I want to add that I adore his comment about ‘slow, sarcastic claps’. Made me smile. xo to you for sharing! 😊

    1. Ah, Vicki – you get extra credit for reading all the way to the end!! You are right about all of this – Jack is a joy and delightfully funny. And life is fragile! Thank you for your comment and for your enthusiastic and thoughtful response!

    1. Thank you both! I love the idea of innovation and technology in service of its audience. Years and years ago I went to an opera house that had CAPTIONS (I kid you not) above the stage that translated the foreign (to us) words and added a huge layer of enjoyment and immersion. I’m looking forward to seeing how these new methods are received!

  2. Break a leg, Jack! (Is that still an appropriate thing to say in this digital age?) We wish you great successes, fame, and riches. You do realize that you’re now going to be our consultant when it comes to putting together a podcast, don’t you? I’m wondering if we could find a way to sell “tickets” here? We want to help in whatever way is possible.

Leave a Reply